Parenting Is a Marathon

Can we talk about parenting? I want to talk about parenting. Not unusual parenting; not step-parenting, special needs parenting, non-custodial parenting, or anything else. Just any old ordinary parenting, mostly the parenting of babies.

Also about pressure, perfection, and perceived power. It’s like a perfect storm of P alliteration.

Earlier today Abbott Labs recalled 5 million cans of Similac powdered infant formula. I learned of the recall from this tweet:

Similac is recalling formula because of BEETLE PARTS! OMG! No bugs in my breast milk, bitches!

I was very polite when I DMed the author of said tweet and asked her, oh-so-sweetly, to remove it. Thankfully, she agreed.

I could have guessed, though, when I heard that Similac was recalling formula that there would be a shit storm of epic proportions. There is almost nothing about feeding babies (or anything else having to do with babies) that isn’t worthy of a shit storm. I had (past tense) a friend who gave me hell every time she saw that Carter was wearing an undershirt under his clothes. Apparently, infants in undershirts is weird and old-fashioned. It’s unnecessary and a waste of time.

If people have strong opinions about undershirts, then obviously things that actually matter, like feeding and sleep, will cause some impressive firework.

I spent 20 minutes out in the jungle of parenting message boards this evening and, as predicted, I found many proclamations that the Similac recall is just what you get when you feed your child something unnatural.

Really? Is that what some people really think? Because as much as I wish that every baby had unlimited access to human milk, either from her or his own mother or from a safe donor supply, I wish even more that all children lived in a world of compassion, kindness, and emotional generosity.

We all want to give our children the best. Maybe not all of us; there are terrible parents in the world, but in general? People try, and mostly do a pretty good job.

Sadly, nothing is good enough, ever. No matter what you do, it won’t be good enough. When Carter was a baby and he cried 90% of his waking hours, everyone knew why. People who believed in attachment parenting said I didn’t hold him enough; mainstream parents said I was spoiling him by holding him too much. Some people said he didn’t sleep because I wouldn’t get tough and force him to stay in his crib; other people said I was unhappy because I wasn’t surrendered to Carter’s needs. The one that hurt the most was that I was upset and Carter’s crying was nothing but a response to that.

No wonder I begged Brian (on a very, very dark day) to let me put Carter in foster care! If I was causing all that misery, wouldn’t it be kindest to give him to someone who wouldn’t do that? Someone who would send him vibes of contentment instead of panic?

But you don’t need to have a high needs baby to be on the receiving end of a shit ton of judgment. My friend Brandee felt the whip-crack of the constant pressure on parents to do everything just right when she announced she was feeding her 6 month old daughter her first taste of solid foods. Her choice, and there’s nothing dangerous about it, so why did so many people want to pile on?

It seems to me that people feel they have an enormous amount of power over their children’s futures; that every choice, from feeding to undershirts, may impact them forever, and dramatically. Every decision we make may mean the difference between a child who grows up to live on the streets, turning tricks to pay for dope, or a child who grows up to become a pediatric neurosurgeon whose life is devoted to Doctors Without Borders.

Part of the problem with doing things just right is that the target keeps moving, becomes ever more unattainable. First, it seemed we should all cloth diaper. Then, a collective cry went up (from where, I’m not sure; MDC, probably) that we weren’t doing it right if we weren’t using organic, un-dyed, handmade diapers. And finally, when it seemed that most people could manage that, elimination communication became the true litmus test of genuinely devoted parents. Or first, having an unmedicated birth was important; then, we shouldn’t be going to hospitals; and finally, unassisted birth was the only way to be truly natural.

Recently, I’ve considered taking Carter’s homebirth story down. That day was wonderful; I am so blessed to have had that experience. I hate the idea, though, of adding any more words to the cacophony that insists any woman can do it that way if she wants to. No, every woman can’t, and every woman doesn’t want to. I’m not pro-homebirth; I’m pro-women-being-educated-and-giving-birth-where-and-how-they-feel-safest.

First, the good news: we are not as powerful as we think we are. Our parenting choices do matter, of course, but our kids are who they are; they aren’t our creations, not lumps of clay for us to mold. The reason just right is unattainable is that it does not exist.

I care about this, and have chosen to write about it, because it’s the same mentality that says it’s OK to blame Brian and me for Carter’s illness. If we had done things just right, he would be OK. If Katie Allison Granju had done things just right, her son Henry would be alive. If those people over there would do things just right, their kids wouldn’t be so rude. They wouldn’t get addicted to drugs or go to prison. They wouldn’t be promiscuous or curse at their teachers or any of a million other things.

Bullshit. Parents are not gods; we’re not even super heroes. We’re people with limits and needs, living in a world that is constantly pushing and pulling us and our children in millions of ways, large and small.

None of this is to say that our choices don’t matter, but the energy that we put into the arguing? What if:

  • Instead of debating whether it’s better for one parent to stay at home or for both parents to work, we all pushed for more options: job sharing, benefits for part-time jobs, telecommuting, paid family leave, and more flexible working conditions of all kinds?
  • Instead of debating whether or not daycare is bad for kids, we pushed for more funding so that all parents who need or want it have access to high-quality care for their children?
  • Instead of fighting the same old breastfeeding/formula feeding debate, we worked to break down the social and economic barriers to successful breastfeeding with which many women struggle?
  • Instead of fighting the same old breastfeeding/formula feeding debate, we gave the people around us the benefit of the doubt and assumed that if they wanted advice, they would ask for it?
  • We acknowledged that we’re all doing our best and unless we know that something is genuinely dangerous, we keep our mouths shut unless we’re asked for our opinion?
  • We all stopped thinking that we are smarter than everyone else? Or smarter than all the people who don’t agree with us? Or all the people who do X, practice Y, or try Z?

I read this plea for advice on a parenting message board:

My baby is asleep in the swing and I think if I get her out I’ll wake her up, but I feel so guilty! I shouldn’t just let her lay over there by herself, right? A good mom holds her baby! How do you all stand it?!? Will she get an attachment problem if I leave her there?

That’s an extreme example, but I witness enough angst to make this worth saying: loving, reasonably functional parents do not cause profound and devastating problems like attachment disorder in their children. Feed them well, but know that no single meal is life-or-death. Nurture and respond, but know, too, that it’s OK to take a shower or go out for the evening.

And for God’s sake, unless your baby is in danger or your breasts are near to exploding, never wake a sleeping baby! That’s just stupid.

As the kids get older, there are other things to fuel everyone’s self-righteous anger. Who homeschools and who sends their kids to school? Which parents sit with their kids during homework and which leave them to do it on their own? Which parents go to all the games and which parents only see a few? Which parents talk to their children about sex and which ones don’t? Which parents are cool and which ones are strict? Who takes their kids to church and who doesn’t?

All of it is fodder for judgment.

That’s a lifetime of self-righteous anger, and whole hell of a lot of energy. There’s a great deal we could do with that energy. If we care about mothers and babies, then fighting with other mothers is not what we need to do. One billion people on planet earth do not have access to clean water; I don’t know if those mothers bicker the way we privileged few do, but my guess is that they’d think we are fussing around the fringes and worrying about things that don’t matter much.

I’m on my knees, begging: come down off that hook. Let everyone off of their hooks. There is no other; just us, doing the best we can. When we make different choices, one of us doesn’t have to be wrong. The person who does that thing that seems so distasteful probably has his or her reasons.

Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. Along the road, shit is going to happen; plans will change. Pace yourself!

You can trust me on this. I used to think I was really smart. Turns out, the universe doesn’t give a shit how smart I am, and all those smart words didn’t feel nearly as good when I ate them as they did when I said them.